A geographer of the human body
Every doctor is a better diagnostician the more anatomy they know
Peter Abrahams is a general practitioner in northwest London, a professor of clinical anatomy at the University of Warwick, a life fellow of Girton College, Cambridge University, and an examiner for the Royal College of Surgeons for more than 30 years. Peter trained at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School after doing Volunteer Service Overseas teaching (VSO, Peace Corps). He intended to become a surgeon but moved into clinical anatomy after writing Clinical Anatomy of Practical Procedures in 1973, which led to him being awarded a British Fulbright scholarship to the University of Iowa to study anatomical education.
Through his role as an educational and anatomical consultant for the World Health Organization he was involved in setting up a new school in Beersheba, Israel, and he has lectured doctors, surgeons, and students in the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, the United States, and Europe. He has published in more than 70 peer reviewed publications and is an author of over 30 student teaching resources on clinical anatomy and radiology translated in more than 70 language editions.
Peter is married to an academic general practitioner and has three grown up daughters and seven grandchildren. When not in clinical practice he can often be found either climbing volcanoes in the jungles of St Vincent or scuba diving.
What made you interested in medicine?
I originally intended to become a geography teacher. I took A levels in French, geography, and history and then went to the jungles of Borneo when I was 17 to teach geography to schoolchildren. While I was there, the locals discovered that I had done a first aid course. Because we were hours away from the nearest hospital by paddle boat, I ran a clinic every night for a year. When someone had fractured their bones, I was the person to work out how to apply splints; when someone had an ill tooth, I did the extraction. I enjoyed it so much that when I returned to England I decided to pursue medicine. During medical school I arranged two trips back to Borneo to perform a research study on the frequency of defective colour vision among the various tribes. The irony, of course, is that I still ended up being a geography teacher—only this time, the geography of the human body. I think spending my youth in a third world country gave me insights into how difficult many people’s lives are around the world.
Is clinical anatomy important to all physicians?
Every doctor is a better diagnostician the more anatomy he or she knows. I don’t think I’m a particularly all rounded doctor, but I think my diagnostic skills are above average because I know every little part of the body. The commonest complaint a patient presents with is pain, and if you know your anatomy it’s not too difficult to work out what particular structure is causing the pain. You need good anatomical knowledge to be a good diagnostician.
What are the advantages of being a clinician and an academic?
It is not easy teaching a clinical subject without clinical practice. I see anatomy as a living entity every week that I practise. When I teach I am taking everything from its rich clinical origins back to basic science. The advantage is that I can walk into a lecture and say, “Last week I saw a patient with this condition, and this is why you need to know this particular structure.”
What are the challenges and satisfactions of being an author of educational resources?
It keeps you on your toes and makes you work with other people. You should never write or author a manuscript on your own. All my books are combined author books, which is rewarding as I have had the chance to work with the most talented writers and anatomists worldwide. I think it also makes one think about the way people learn and about the practical aspects of education and not just theoretical educational jargon. Nevertheless, when books are about to be published it is not an easy time. One could be working 20 hours a day to get the proofs finished on time. This can cause stress with family and spouse.
How do you balance your clinical and academic life with family?
With great difficulty. It takes a lot of hard work. I sometimes work eighteen hours a day. One cannot expect to write books and publications without a lot of hard graft. I’m no better than the average, and one simply has to put in the hours to excel in any field. When my three kids were young, it was very hard for my wife and me to cope. My wife took 10 years out of her job as a general practitioner to take care of the children, and afterwards decided to re-instate her licence to practise medicine. I then stayed [at] home with the kids, and reduced my workload. The trick is to marry the right person. My wife and I have been a great team, and I’ve luckily been married 42 years.
What is the most rewarding experience of your career?
Being made an honoured member of the American Association of Clinical Anatomists. I personally do not consider myself in the class of other honoured members. It gave me great elation that my colleagues in the US considered and recognised me for my contributions in the field of anatomy. Another rewarding moment in my career was my appointment as national teaching fellow—the highest teaching and educational award in UK universities. It was quite a thrill and honour to know that the university thought I was one of their best teachers.
What advice would you pass on to medical students?
Go with the flow. Do not over-determine what you think you would like to do now. I never intended to be an anatomist and I’ve become the happiest bunny in the world. I’ve been all over the world, had great fun, and I’m still working even after some of my colleagues have retired. The point is, some people focus too early. You never know what opportunities life may bring your way. Some people have a passion for certain things, such as the brain, and they know that being a neurosurgeon is the only field that will make them happy. But most people are not like that. I started off thinking I would be a surgeon, but I’m not, I’m a GP and a clinical anatomist, and I love every moment of it.Daryl Ramai, second year medical student
1St George’s University, Grenada, West Indies
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h1901